Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey


Cowal Highland Gathering 2002 by Victor Wesley

It was a distinct privilege to be asked to attend Cowal acting as a correspondent for a publication that has a worldwide readership. I was given complete autonomy in my article as far as questions posed from the readership's perspective with regard to Highland Dancing, which was just as well because of the answers given.

Prior to my arrival, I reminisced, the feeling of waiting on the pier to cross the Clyde from Gourouck both as a child and as an adult. The feeling when you hear the pipes playing prior to arrival in Dunoon has never left me. It made me remember the days that I was so terribly proud to be Scottish.
This day brought back great memories, from the moment of arrival at the field, where very little had changed. Still there were the anxious mothers, fathers and competitors who believe that this is all that matters in life. Those who have opted for complete faith and trust in those who are the officials . The disappointment of competition when a judge whom they know through association gives the prize to someone other than them. Not forgetting the teachers who are like a brood of hens waiting and watching to catch every mistake and criticize the judges as being bias.

Dancers come from all over the world to Cowal because it is synonymous with the past. It has built its reputation accordingly on the history that was formerly so rich and had neutrality. No matter "who" judges or runs the dancing competition, parents are willing to "finance" the pilgrimage, even if the weather is bad. They are willing to subject their children to this exhilarating experience of joy, excruciating disappointment and in most case rejection just to say "we danced at Cowal" and they will continue to do so no matter the weather or political bias.


This day as other major world dance bodies, who also qualify professional teachers and adjudicators, watch as their dancers and judges world wide are "banned for life" from truly open participation at Cowal Gathering. These professionals and organizations of the dance who chose not to "confine" dancers and judges or register under the SOBHD 'monopoly, no longer share in the excitement of the day, their parents and children look away from Cowal. Not for them is "this" a World Championship but a "SOBHD World Confined Competition", sponsored by its patrons and under the blemish of discrimination of Scots and children not of the SOBHD throughout the world.

This brings to note certain criteria that I would use, as a previously examined highly qualified adjudicator and former adult world champion, able to act with impartiality and free of restraints.( Note Mr. Wesleys bio and qualifications appear on the articles page)


When I competed 33 years ago or so, there were dancers in every category who were uniquely diverse in style and technical ability from all over the world. Each dancing a selection of technical individuality that made them so outstanding as competitors. They were enjoyable and exciting to watch both to the audience and certainly to the judges.

In those days we danced many more steps than the dancer of today, 8 or 10 Fling, 5 &1 Sword and 8 & 2 Shean Truibhas. This maintained not only the "ability" of the dancer but the "stamina factor". A great dancer who was not trained or honed to be a great athlete could easily be spotted not just by the judges or mother, but the whole arena therefore; consequently to win you earned your place and made dance history.


During the day , I selected dancers at random from various countries who all dance the SOBHD technical steps or championship steps for that year. They adhere to the standards as set forth by their technical committee and all whom, according to the quote of a by- stander "look like Barbie Dolls". As I watched the events unfold I witnessed for myself the ever so prevalent plastic look facially, exuding void expression or personality with the exception of a very few.

I also witnessed some beautiful dancers competing in the finals with some very inexperienced looking candidates.

Coleen Rintamaki the current Adult SOBHD World Champion, would have no problem in walking away with the title again. She is the complete package, she has "IT"!! Walked on the stage like a champion, more dignified than any of the others knew why she was there and the job that had to be done, a true competitor!

Whilst others dancers were "coming down" this dancer was still elevated. Very pleasing to the eye. Back step jumps to 3rd ariel position no clear run in movement, handwork strained with fingers closed, no definition. She "shows" extremely well but could even be better than she already is.

(NOTE: The full overview of other dancers( not named in print) critiqued on this day will appear in the forthcoming article for Highland Highlights)

Invariably natural head positions have been replaced with unnatural body twists. In some cases contorted extraneous movement culminating in spinal misalignment. Every dancer look tired from performing limited (6) steps. Overall the chosen dancers in each final were not "all" of a higher level or training or ability. It would have been better to eliminate, by cutting the fat. (Note: a dancer needs only a six place from a judge in the heat to enter the final) and showing the "very best" competing.

Dancers were dancing set steps (SOHBD) which were either not suited to their particular level of ability and others were "restricted" in confinement of their particular ability.

The educational aspect of the importance of dancing correctly and the physiological and anatomical approach to teaching is an art itself and one that I can see is being disregarded on the whole in teaching. Teachers are responsible for knowing right from wrong, what can ultimately harm the body and improper training methods can cause damage that will show up in later life. This lack of understanding by those training today's dancers is quite prevalent when seeing some dancers compete.

When watching the dancers of today's competitions either the dancers themselves are unaware of these potential hazards on the body or the teachers are not aware of the anatomical damage they are responsible for and imposing on the dancers. Maybe there is another lucrative profession looming in the future for highland dancers a future in physical therapy!

"The Questions"

There was no shortage of people wishing to give opinions and views and solutions for that matter posed to them, however "don't mention my name" was the most common request. The decisive fear of a certain SOBHD judge when I addressed her for fear she was perceived to be in anyway communicating with me, as witnessed by Celtic Worlds Bruce Campbell.

So without naming too many names the question and poll taken at Cowal by yours truly to SOBHD adjudicators, parents and some spectators.

Q.What in your professional opinion do you feel about the technical and artistic standard of today's current champions or dancers in the past two days of Cowal?

Ans. (Judges and Teachers BATD and UKA consensus of the top answers) "they are quite high but nothing like former years" "there were many personalities in the dancing, that is no longer prevalent" " the number of dancers competing for the top prize and depth was greater, nowadays there is a vast difference of ability between the one or two vying for no 1 and the rest of the field" "dancers had more stamina even with more steps to dance and without getting a rest overnight"

Q. Then who were the great Adult champions names that you remember of the past?

Ans: (spectators judges SOBHD and Non SOBHD) the names mentioned the most frequently not in any special order May Falconer, JL MacKenzie, Robert Cutherbertson, Catriona Buchanan Betty Jessiman, Gordon Yates, Victor Wesley, and Rosemary McGuire. Gregor Bowman & Colleen Rintamaki were mentioned most frequently as the SOBHD champions.
Q. What is the different about Cowal in your opinion from previous years (not a direct answer to my question but more of the focus on the timing of the event)?

Ans. SOBHD, Canada " It now runs two days and gives the dancers a rest." Scotland: Two days: It gives the judges a chance to think about their results from the day before" Australia " Two days which helps support the local economy of Dunoon for a longer period" Australian Mother. "I'm sure it (two days) is to make more money"

Q. What is the ratio of judges from affiliated organizations?
My question wasn't answered:

STDA and UK source in agreement said 'some say it depends on the association whose judge is in and who will win depending on whether they overlap into other associations"

Q. Do you feel that dancers and organizers of events such as Cowal could benefit from a joined or unified alliance of all world dance organizations and governing bodies?

Ans. Poll of 16 individuals Teachers, Dancers judges and spectators


Q. Do you feel dancers at Cowal should be judged by just any judge because of their qualification (taking the SOBHD test) regardless of whether they may have or never had a successful competitive career or could competitors benefit by being judged by those that were acknowledged among their peers as great adult competitors regardless of affiliation?

Ans: All SOBHD connected who are afraid to be identified as holding such an opinion answered with the affirmative ( note : these names have been submitted to HH..not for print.. by Mr. Wesley Scotland: "it would make the dancer work harder and certainly eliminate nepotism and giving of prizes for jobs offered to travel overseas for wee holidays" Canada: "it seems that from the results if you bring a judge over for workshops or are connected you have a better chance of ending in the results"

Q. Would you like to see a truly "open" to the World platform return to Cowal without discrimination of children being banned and judges accepted unilaterally from all world associations and judging panels?

Ans. A cross section of approximately thirty people, dancers, teachers, judges, spectators Ans approximation 70 percent in favor, 20 percent don't care and 10% want retention of the way things are currently run.

Q. What does Cowal mean to you?

Ans "a wee chance to get away for the day" "always wanted to win a medal at Cowal" "It's a privilege to judge at Cowal because everyone can see your name in the program" "It's a chance to represent your Association

Q. Are the judges today, in your opinion, among the great names of the dance arena, if so who?

Ans. Only two were mentioned consistently Miss MacDonald and Mr. Bowman.

The Judges

First who are the judges? What is their pedigree or background qualification? What qualifies them to judge these dancers of a "World Championship" even if it is now confined, over and above a "certificate" that says they are members of an association affiliation and have taken a SOBHD test. Do they have a pedigree? To quote the late great May Falconer without a pedigree "truth of the matter it is just not enough"

The judge's names were in the program for all who attended Cowal to read and accept under SOBHD rule as being capable of judging this higher standard of competition. Under SOBHD rules which limits to the upper levels of only competitors sanctioned to compete according to the SOBHD who are registered members of their scheme As far as the background check on the judges, does anyone ever do research on who they really are, what is their pedigree, or how they got there or just why they were hired. What is the hiring criterion? Could it be that they are over themselves on a little holiday so to spare expense for the organization "why don't you come along and judge"?

Yvonne Wylie (Clydebank); Trevor Hicks (South Africa); Margaret Livingstone (East Kilbride); Gregor Bowman (Glasgow); Fiona Gallacher (Leven); Mandy Campbell (Grangemouth) Sheen MacDonald (Combernauld) Dorothy Young (Edinburgh) Katie Rowan (Ayr) Maureen Fyffe (Australia); Lezley Anderson (Dundee); Kaye Spiller (Canada); Aileen Young (Glasgow) and Brenda McCourt (Kilmarnock)

Well lets see out of this bunch, there was Sheena MacDonald the only great former champion dancer from the days when Cowal was truly "open to the world". Gregor Bowman a former "confined to SOBHD" Adult World Champion, K. Rowan former confined SOBHD Junior champion and Brenda McCourt a former great adult dance competitor at many of the games from my day. When I enquired of Mr. George Mitchelson< why Brenda McCourt was not judging on the Saturday's championship events his answer was that "she did not qualify because she did not attend so many SOBHD meetings". Since when does a meeting become more important over the true ability of a great and truly outstanding former adult competitor?

So who do the other SOBHD judges recognize and feel about the selected judges whose names they have never heard of or seen as competitors well "they are according to the SOBHD exam standards "authorities" and one must accept that, further to this if you dare speak out or enquire or question you will be severely reprimanded"; hence the request for anonymity among those that I interviewed.

My question then is why? If they "the others" were really outstanding former competitors in the adult levels at gatherings such as Cowal, then there should be no problem in asking. After all the parents who are the fee paying benefactors, the financiers of all "Highland dancing competitive events" deserve to know that those that judge the highest levels are really knowledgeable and equally capable themselves of matching this level as former competitors. In my opinion the dancers really deserve to be judged by real experts

Year's prior when I competed in this same arena and won in a truly free and open to the world competitive championship, the names of most of the judges were the "who's who" of the highland world.

Yes, there were a few others who were interjected for whatever political reason, Mrs. Scott who did her shopping and brought it on to the field. Dr. McLarren (who eventually became the chairman of the SOBHD) who tried to exchange his events with other judges (HDSA) because he didn't know how to judge a Hornpipe! Sheriff Bell who was being "courted" at that time by the SOBHD.

At least a dozen dance teachers in the SOBHD were complaining and were concerned that judges, were allowed to adjudicate their family members students and place them which would certainly influence the result of the championship.

Yet they were all afraid to openly object due to reprisals, "Overtones of the Olympics" was one of the quotes from two parents in the overseas enclosure area.

For the competitors who are lucky enough to be in the political know of the associations and whose teachers are able to promote the hierarchy, and then they will leave with a certificate, medal or trophy. Credit is not to the real competitor but to the teacher who claims a more prominent place of recognition within their association, and now is in favor as a judge or examiner and being solicited to teach at workshops etc. until another takes their place. Who then are the real winners?

As I bid farewell to another year in history which finds the organization (SOBHD) that "run" Cowal and continues to deny the existence of others in the dancing "world", I sigh, for the true meaning that this competition now represents as opposed to what it used to be!

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.